Death at the Fringe

Several works at the Boulder International Fringe Festival tackle the most important — and terrifying — issue of all

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Nirvamlet mixes Hamlet with 90s grunge in a rocktail of icons and heart-shaped depression, with a splash of conspiracy and murder. Presented by Band of Toughs at the Boulder International Fringe Festival.
Courtesy of Band of Toughs

Every year since 2014, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival has hosted a series called Death on the Fringe, a festival within the festival that explores the notion of dying as well as we live.

Morbid? Maybe. But let’s be honest: what’s more fringe than death?

In Edinburgh, it’s a full-blown campaign aimed at making death less taboo, an attempt to better equip people to support each other through the hardest times in life, be it the death of a loved one or the end of our own life.

And while it may not be listed on their website, the Boulder International Fringe Festival is quietly hosting it’s own series on death, buried (pun intended) within the two dozen shows that will be playing at venues across Boulder from Aug. 15-26.

Take former Denver resident Moira Keefe’s newest work, LIFE, DEATH AND NUMBERS, for example. Keefe has been creating memoirs based on her life since 1989: There’s LIFEAFTERBIRTH, LIFE BEFORE SEX, LIFE BEFORE THE CRISIS and LIFE WITH A TEENAGER, all comedies delivered with Keefe’s stripped-down honesty. With LIFE, DEATH AND NUMBERS, Keefe inevitably takes on the other side of life, the story of her mother’s death and the resulting chaos and angst in her large Catholic family. She uses numbers to represent each of her eight siblings — mainly to avoid calling anyone out by name, though she says it’s easy enough to figure out who’s who — as they struggle to navigate the new reality in their lives.

“We were raised in the ’50s,” Keefe says over the phone from her home in Montana. “Parenting was tough. There were so many of us … I don’t’ remember anybody talking about being close to their moms. Most of our dads had tempers. Your mom would scream a lot but your dad, you stayed away from him. I moved away from home at 19 and I never lived at home again. It’s hard to have a relationship with a parent when you’re so far away.”

LIFE, DEATH AND NUMBERS tackles the preconceived notions we have about how it’s going to be when our parents die (and, consequently, probably how it’ll be when we die). Keefe thought she’d be holding her mother’s hand when she passed; instead she was absent-mindedly cleaning in the hospital room. Only eight of the nine siblings were present at her mother’s wake, where a book called The Thing About Life is Someday You’ll be Dead mistakenly made its way to the table of her mother’s most valued possessions.

People can relate, Keefe says, and that’s the goal.

“My pieces always bring you up, they bring you down,” she says. “It’s life. My pieces are all about life.”

The Boulder-based Band of Toughs are also tackling death this year, although it may not read as such on the surface of their multi-disciplinary show Nirvamlet, a mash-up of the very real tragedy of Kurt Cobain and the very literary tragedy of Hamlet.

The idea for the show came during a wine-soaked evening at the theater collaborative’s annual retreat.

“I will admit, after a few glasses of wine a company member said, ‘What about Nirvamlet?’” says director Colleen Mylott. “We started to listen to some grunge music and while we were just laughing and thinking it was just a joke, we suddenly turned to each other and said, ‘That actually has legs.’”

It turns out, unbeknownst to Mylott at the time, that Kurt Cobain was “obsessed” with Hamlet toward the end of his life, as was his wife, Courtney Love. The Band of Toughs turned to Cobain’s hand-written journals for some quotes and source material, with Love’s character easily becoming the Claudius figure in the remake.

“Kurt is kind of the haunting presence in this because he’s the ghost,” Mylott says. “The twist and turns are sometimes Shakespeare and sometimes from [Cobain and Love’s story]. There are a lot of conspiracies about Kurt’s death, but we’ve been careful about not coming down on a side. The most interesting question is: Should Hamlet have trusted the ghost?”

Hamlet, like Kurt Cobain’s truncated life, offers lessons about human suffering and the mystery of the human experience. But Mylott says it’s not to be taken quite so seriously: there’ll be beer and live music in an atmosphere of experimental theater.

And quite frankly, nobody’s getting out of here alive, so it’s best not to take much of anything too seriously.

Also catch Michael Burgos’ The Eulogy, an award-winning theatrical parody of a funeral speech.

On the Bill: 2018 Boulder International Fringe Festival. Aug. 15-26, various locations around Boulder. For more information visit www.boulderfringe.com